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The similarities and differences between the Fourth Gospel and Synoptic Gospel


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  1. Introduction

The task of bringing out the similarities and differences of the Gospel of John in relation to the synoptic Gospels is a very complex task. Many scholars have undertaken this task and expounded the reasons behind the similarities and differences between the fourth Gospels and synoptic Gospels. The whole task of bringing out the similarities and differences is made on the assumption that the John’s Gospel was written after the synoptic Gospel. This paper mainly deals with the question “does John complements the Synoptic Gospels or does he surpasses them or contradicts them? The other issue this paper deals is about the dependent and independent origin of John’s Gospel in relation to the Synoptic Gospels. Has John depended on the Synoptic Gospels or on any other sources in composing his Gospel? Is there any probable explanation other than these two theories. Due to the limitation of this paper, I have selected few topics and presented the arguments of different scholars and my own reflections were added in each of the sections.

  1. The content:

The Gospel of John is a theological work written in a framework of Jesus’ life on earth. Traditionally this is placed alongside with the synoptic gospels. Raymond E. Brown states that “the very fact the John is classified as a Gospel is based on a tradition similar in character to the traditions behind the synoptic Gospels.”[1] Though it is placed alongside with the synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John has striking differences in its topography. All the three synoptic Gospels record Jesus’ Galilean ministry to a large extent where as his ministry in “Jerusalem was in the week leading to Passover, at which he was opposed by the Jewish rulers, arrested, tried and put to death by the Romans.”[2] In the Gospel of John, the ministry of Jesus is mostly concentrated in Jerusalem and Judea. The only description of Jesus’ Galilean ministry is of three signs in John 2: 1-11; 4: 43-54; and in chapter 6. This is a striking difference between John and the synoptic Gospels.

  1. The beginning of Jesus’ ministerial carrier:

In John’s Gospel, we see Jesus had already started his ministry in Judea at the same time as of John the Baptist. Whereas in the Synoptic Gospels we see Jesus ministry and his call to the first disciples after the imprisonment of John the Baptist.

  1. The time span of Jesus’ ministry:

Now, coming to the length of Jesus’ ministry, in Synoptic Gospels, though it is difficult to come up with the accurate length of his ministry. There is one visit mentioned where Jesus visits Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover. By this we may probably confine Jesus’ ministry to one year because after his visit to Jerusalem he was crucified there. In the Gospel of John we see Jesus is present at Jerusalem during three Passovers. So, extends Jesus’ ministry over two more years.

  1. Cleansing of the temple:

In the synoptic Gospels, the cleansing of the temple occurs during Jesus ministry whereas in John’s Gospel, it occurs at the beginning of Jesus public ministry. “This has led many to assume that Jesus cleansed the temple twice.”[3] Many scholars attribute the synoptic date of this event to be accurate. Why John mentioned this event at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry? The reason could be that John was trying to emphasize “its significance”[4] in understanding Jesus’ ministry.

  1. Difference in the meaning of “Temple cleansing act” :

As we have observed that all the four Gospels record “temple cleansing act”. Each gospel has its own meaning and significance in recording this event. Matthew presents this event immediately after the “triumphal entry” which signifies the fulfillment of the promise made in Deuteronomy 18: 15. The cleaning of the temple depicts the authority of Jesus as a King. In Mark, this event signifies “the symbolic destruction of the temple.”[5]For John this act signifies “the replacement of the temple”[6] with Christ’s death and resurrection.

  1. Differences in the date of “the Last supper”:

In John’s Gospel, we see that “the Last supper” took place on the eve of the Passover (Jh. 13: 1; 18: 28). In Synoptic Gospels, “the Last supper” was a Passover celebration. When we examine the Jewish traditions, the Passover was celebrated on two different dates. “One on the basis of a solar calendar, followed by the Essenes, the other a lunar calendar, observed by the Jewish authorities.” If it is on the basis of solar calendar, then the Passover would on Tuesday and on the basis of Lunar calendar, the Passover would be on Friday. However, the dating of “the Last supper” is an issue. Some scholars say that according to Synoptic gospels Jesus and the disciples had “the Last supper” in anticipation of the Passover celebration.

  1. In relation to the Synoptic Gospels:

When compared to the synoptic Gospels John omits many accounts which are by themselves characteristics of the synoptic Gospels. As mentions earlier, John focuses on Jesus’ ministry in south, in Judea, Samaria, than in Galilee while synoptic Gospels focuses on Jesus ministry in the North. The accounts like “narrative parables, the account of transfiguration, the record of institution of the Lord’s supper and many of Jesus’ pithy sayings”[7] were omitted and thematic concepts like Kingdom of God or Kingdom of heaven are also not to be seen. We also see frequent visits to Jerusalem and extended discourses and the resurrection of Lazarus and much more. But John supplements a new material which the synoptic Gospels make no mention. This unique material which John is presenting should be given a serious consideration. This is a “growing tendency”[8] to consider the historical, geographical and social details of the John’s Gospel. Now this brings us to an issue whether John is dependent on the synoptic Gospels or he composed the Gospel independent of the synoptic Gospels.

  1. Similarities between John and the synoptic Gospels:[9]

There are notable similarities when compared with the synoptic Gospels. For example

  • spirit’s anointing of Jesus as testified by John the Baptist (Mark 1: 10 and John 1:32),
  • the difference between the baptisms of the John the Baptist and Jesus (Mark 1: 7-8 and John 1: 23),
  • the feeding of the five thousand ( Mark 6: 32-44 and John 6: 1-15,
  • the walking on the water ( Mark 6:45-52 and John 6: 16-21).

There are some few parallels in the sayings of Jesus too, though they are not identical but partial. For example Matt. 9:37; Jh. 4:35, Mk. 6:4; Jh. 4:44, Matt. 25: 46; Jh. 5:29, Matt. 11: 25-27; Jh. 10: 14-15, Mk. 4:12; Jh. 12:39-40. It is inevitable for us to doubt whether John is literarily dependent on the synoptic Gospels or he is dependent on other sources other than synoptic Gospels.

  1. Dependence on the synoptic Gospels:

The narrative part of John’s Gospel includes the ministry of “John the Baptist, Jesus calling of the disciples, Temple cleansing, the healing of the official’s son, multiplication of loves and walking on water, peter’s confession, arguments with Jewish authorities, the anointing of Jesus and the entry into Jerusalem and outline of Last supper, passion, death, and resurrection.”[10] The theory like “supplementation” [11]presupposes the authorship of the Gospel to John the son of Zebedee who read the synoptic Gospels and wanted to compose Jesus’ life and a picture of spirituality. Now, John’s Gospel may not be a supplementation to the synoptic but it is an “interlocking tradition”[12] at many places in John and the synoptic. Interlocking tradition means John and the synoptic Gospels “mutually reinforce or explain each other without betraying overt literary dependence.”[13] For example, the assumption in Mark. 14: 49, which states that Jesus had constantly taught in the temple precincts is explained in John’s account of Judean ministry and there are many more.

There is a great argument among scholars about John’s use of another source other than synoptic Gospels. However, the first third of the 20th century, many scholars held on to the theory of dependence on the synoptic Gospels. At the bottom of this argument there was always a debate in regard to the affinity of John’s Gospel to the Gospel of Mark. C.H. Dodd argues that there is no clear and substantial evidence for any literary dependence of John on any of the synoptic Gospels.[14] But there are few scholars who say that John must have had read at least one of the synoptic Gospels and also pre-Gospel traditions. Since the Johannine dependency was not conclusively proven, the Independent theory of John’s Gospel had become dominant. The reason behind this is according to Dodd, “the early church was not such a bookish community as it has been represented.”[15] So, the medium of that time was oral transmission. So, according to Dodd, a liturgy, didache, Kerygma tradition was built. So, the Gospels were the products of these oral traditions. So, in a sense the gospels were the “products of anonymous faces in Christian communities that are more or less independent of other communities …”[16] In such a case, we cannot conclusively prove the dependency of John’s Gospel on the Synoptic Gospels.




  1. Independent of Synoptic Gospels:

The theory of “Johannine independence of the synoptic Gospels”[17] has become dominant by the mid 20th century. Many scholars felt that John might have had access to the traditions which are “similar and parallel” to the traditions that were used by the synoptic authors, but John carefully constructed his Gospel independently.[18] So, in that sense, the sources which John used might have been independent of the synoptic traditions. There are so many reasons for this. One is John presents a strong Christological theology in the prologue itself where as it is a developing concept in the synoptic Gospels. More so, these Christological themes are of different tradition, may be a tradition which has been developed after the Synoptic Gospels. John made use of these traditions which are independent to the synoptic traditions. Even Bultmann says the sources which have Jesus’ deeds and discourses are not historical and also not the synoptic Gospels, complied with the idea that the “passion narrative sources, though resembling the synoptic passion, was independent.”[19] The theory of “Interlocking” should not be taken into consideration to support the dependency of John’s Gospel on the synoptic Gospels. In a sense, according to interlocking theory, we can make sense of John’s Gospel when we read synoptic beforehand. It does not mean that it is essential to read Synoptic Gospels to understand the Gospel of John. It only establishes the historical value of the narration. For example, John’s passion narrative is well understood when it is read in the light of the synoptic Gospels. Even the theological points in John have some detail explanation in the synoptic Gospels and vice versa. So, the independent theory of John’s Gospel is more plausible than dependent theory of John’s Gospel on the Synoptic Gospels.

  1. Similarities and differences in theological concepts:

When compared to the synoptic Gospels, we find the Christology in the prologue and in the whole John’s Gospel at large is more advanced. In the prologue itself, John answers the basic question “who is Jesus?” To this, John responds by projecting Christ as the glorified one with the Father. Where as in the synoptic Gospels, the disciples grew in their understanding of “Who Jesus is?”. John conveys the failure of their understanding of “who Jesus is?” and where as in the synoptic Gospels it is not so. We find the themes like “Logos”, “Grace”, and “truth” which we do not find in the synoptic Gospels. The concept of “eternal life” when compared with synoptic Gospels, John presents it in a different way. In Synoptic Gospels, “zwh” which means eternal life always used in terms of “future life that will be given by God.”[20] so, it is used in contrast with the present age. So, the disciples had to deal with the problem of sin here in the present age in order to have eternal life. John uses this theme in a context of promise with an open invitation. He also speaks of “eternal life” in futuristic terms. According to him, those who believed Christ are already in “eternal life” in the present age and “it is fully realized in future with the coming of the Lord.”[21]

The other word peculiar to Johannine vocabulary is “truth”. In Synoptic Gospels, this word plays a small role. John uses this word as an opposite to the falsehood and genuineness. He presents this concept as the reality of the word which was revealed in Christ by the God the Father. The other term is “Glory”. John uses the “theophanic term”[22] glory which should not be misunderstood in physical terms but to be understood as an intimate relationship with the Father. This particular word in Greek is “doxa” which has some OT background. This word is actually derived from the Hebrew word “db¡kÉ””” which is God’s glory at the tabernacle. So, in synoptic Gospels, Christ’s glory is something that he would have in future. In a sense, Synoptic Gospels speak of “Glory” in future eschatological terms. John uses the word “Glory” in connection with the present age of Jesus’ ministry. We find this theme at the beginning of the gospel in the prologue where John presents Christ as the Incarnated word and as the glorified one with the Father.


  1. portrayal of Jesus in John and Synoptic Gospels:

John primarily deals with the question of “who is Jesus”. In the prologue itself he makes it obvious that Jesus is the Only Son of the Father. So, he starts his narration by presenting Jesus as “God” at the beginning of his Gospel. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus is presented as a man-“the one who has right to forgive sins (Mark 2: 1-12 par. – and who can forgive sins but God alone?)”[23] It does not mean that the synoptic Gospels contradict the idea of Jesus as the Son of God but it is in a “seed form”[24] which was slowly developed in the Gospels by the end of their respective narrations. In John also, it does not mean that John was rejecting the human nature of Jesus. John also presents Jesus as a “subordinate to the Father.[25] The similarity of the four Gospels is that they all present Jesus as a teacher, healer and the one who suffered and died on the cross. Now, coming to the virgin birth in the John’s Gospel, it seems John was silent on this regard whereas all the synoptic Gospels recorded the Virgin birth account of Jesus. When we observe John’s Gospel, John was always talking about the pre-existence of Christ. This is something peculiar about the John’s Gospel. In the prologue, John presents Jesus as the “incarnated word of God”. What he meant was that the birth of Jesus was not of blood or by the will of man but by the will of God. Though John is not explicitly presenting the virgin birth account of Jesus Christ, he intrinsically shows the kind of birth pre-existent Christ had when he was incarnated into flesh. In this regard all the four Gospels, reject the procreation act in Jesus’ birth.

  1. Jesus’ miracles in John and the Synoptic Gospels:

The miracles in John’s Gospel are termed as “signs”. Raymond E. Brown outlines the the Gospel of John on this basis by entitling the part of miracles in John as “the book of signs”. Where as in Synoptic Gospels, it is miracles. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is presented as more than a miracle worker. All his signs explicitly refers to the faith. This is because all the miracles in John and also in the synoptic Gospels answer the question of Jesus’ identity. In John’s Gospel, John uses miracles more explicitly to explain the identity of Jesus but in Synoptic Gospels, they were used implicitly.[26]

  1. Jesus as “teacher or Rabbi” in John and Synoptic Gospels:

We know that from the four Gospels Jesus is designated as “teacher or Rabbi”. So, what is the difference in John and Synoptic Gospels? D. M. Smith says that it is Jesus’ teaching i.e., the way John presented Jesus’ teaching is different. Jesus’ teaching in John has a very narrow focus.[27] When we observe the teachings of Jesus in John, Jesus always spent his time with disciples teaching about himself. He is always been seen teaching his disciples about his identity. It is in this context we see the seven “I am” saying of Jesus which is peculiar and unique in John’s Gospel when compared to Synoptic Gospels. Erick Rust, as quoted by Okorie says that “ “no longer does God speaks through the prophets. Rather he stoops down in human form and through the historical life and deeds of Jesus, works his own mighty unique acts consummating in his saving self-revelation.””[28] In synoptic Gospels we see Jesus teaching in public. In a sense we see Jesus expounding his Christological identity and there by provoking the minds of the Pharisees and Sadducees and illuminating the minds of the disciples. Of course this aspect is there in the synoptic Gospels but it is in a developing state where it reaches its climax at the end of their respective narrations.

  1. Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection:

In John, the suffering of Jesus is not highlighted whereas synoptic Gospels does. According to John, it is by his own decision and call, Jesus submits himself to the suffering of the Cross and to the death also. In Synoptic Gospels, Jesus was presented as a man under violent suffering and especially if we see the narrative at the Gethsemane, we come to know the intensity of the suffering of Jesus that the Synoptic Gospels were presenting. In John, the narration at Gethsemane is absent. The whole idea of John in presenting, as far as my observation is concerned is that John was trying to present Jesus as the one who has full control of the situation even in that hostile situations. In this regard, I would like to comply with D. M. Smith who says that it is Jesus who is in “control of matters.”[29] In Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is presented as the one who is silent before Pilate but in John it is Jesus who speaks.

Now, coming to the resurrection narrative, it has its place in all the four Gospels but is narrated in a different way. The question of when the resurrection happened was recorded in different forms which were confusing to the reader. While John agrees with Mark, Mathew and Luke uses different expressions. The events followed by resurrection account is presented in a dramatic way in John’s Gospel when compared to the Synoptic Gospels. All the four Gospels follows the same chronology of time – Thursday evening, Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning, but this is widely debated among the scholars. However, the authors of the four Gospels worked in the same chronological time framework. It should be noted there are discontinuities in resurrection account in the synoptic Gospels. John connects all those loses ends in the synoptic Gospels. So, John narrates form the discovery of the empty tomb, appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, then Jesus appearance to his disciples and to Thomas the last of all and then to the narrative of Jesus questioning Peter.

Now Matthew reports the accounts of the crucifixion, the death of Jesus, the burial of Jesus, the resurrection- Mary Magdalene visit to the empty tomb, the report of the guard at the tomb and the great commission. Mark did not present much after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead but he records the great commission. Now, coming to Luke, though he adds the account of the event of two followers of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, he does not explicitly give the names of the women who visited the empty tomb. John records the detailed after-resurrection events of Jesus. The purpose is to enlighten the minds of the disciples and those who follow him. Here John explains in detail about the great commission in different appearings of Jesus to his disciples and it attains its complete meaning when Jesus challenges Peter and commissions what he has to do if he loves Jesus.

  1. Conclusion:

In Conclusion John’s Gospel has striking differences when compared to the Synoptic Gospels. So, far from this paper, we may probably say that John is complementing the Synoptic narration of Jesus’ life, ministry, his death and resurrection. In what, it is complementing the synoptic Gospels? It is explicitly explaining some details where Synoptic Gospels have those details implicitly in their narrations vice versa. Does this mean John is literally dependent on Synoptic Gospels? He may not have literally depended on the Synoptic Gospels but he might have had access to at least one the synoptic Gospels. Now, coming to the independent theory of John’s Gospel, John might have had used different sources which were not used by the Synoptic authors. Most probably these sources might be in oral tradition particularly circulated in the Johannine community of which John was the leader. In one way or the other all the four Gospels try to answer the question of Jesus’ identity. In John, he explicitly elevated Jesus as “the only Son of God” but in Synoptic Gospels it is in developing idea which reaches its climax at the end of their narrations. The most important feature of John’s Gospel is his portrayal of Jesus which is different from the Synoptic Gospels. When compared to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is presented as more than a miracle worker. Especially the “I am” statements gives Jesus a status equal to God in connection with Old Testament conception of God (Yahweh).

My understanding is that though there are some chronological differences when we compare John’s Gospel with Synoptic Gospels but when this task is dealt textually- the content, the theological message remains the same. Though some themes in synoptic gospels may be in developing stage but on the surface level they project the same message. This binds all the four Gospels together. So, from the text itself we can say that John’s Gospel is complementing the synoptic Gospels and thus, answering the question that was raised in the beginning.





Beasley-Murray, G.R. “Synoptics and John.” In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and Howard I. Marshall. Leicester, England.

Brown S.S, Raymond . An Introduction to the Gospel of John.  Edited by Francis J. Moloney, S.D.B. First edition. New York: ABRL DOUBLEDAY, 2003.

Carson, D.A, and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.

Dodd, C.H. Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel. Cambridge: The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1965.

Okorie, A.m. “The self-revelation of Jesus in the “T am” sayings of John’s Gospel.” ATLA Religion Database with ATLA Serials, no. by ATLA (2001).

S.J, Charles Homer Giblin, “Two complementary Literary Structures in John 1:1-18.” Fordham University,Bronx, NY  V.104 (1985): 87-103.

Smith, Moody. D. Johannine Christianity. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark LTD.,, 1987.

Thomaskutty, Johnson. “Introduction to Johannine Thought: with a detailed study of selected texts in English language.” Lecture presented at the Class Lecture on 07-07-2009, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune.


[1] Raymond  Brown S.S, An Introduction to the Gospel of John, ed. Francis J. Moloney, S.D.B, First edition. (New York: ABRL DOUBLEDAY, 2003), 90.

[2] G.R. Beasley-Murray, “Synoptics and John,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and Howard I. Marshall (Leicester, England), 792.

[3] Ibid., 793.

[4] Ibid., 793.

[5] Ibid., 817.

[6] Ibid., 817.

[7] D.A Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan), 257.

[8] Brown S.S, An Introduction to the Gospel of John, 91.

[9] Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 258.

[10] Brown S.S, An Introduction to the Gospel of John, 94.

[11] Ibid., 94.

[12] Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 258.

[13] Ibid., 258.

[14] Ibid., 259.

[15] C.H Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1965), 8.

[16] Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 260.

[17] Brown S.S, An Introduction to the Gospel of John, 97.

[18] Ibid., 97.

[19] Ibid., 98.

[20] Johnson Thomaskutty, “Introduction to Johannine Thought: with a detailed study of selected texts in English language” (Lecture presented at the Class Lecture on 07-07-2009, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Charles Homer Giblin, S.J, “Two complementary Literary Structures in John 1:1-18,” Fordham University,Bronx, NY  V.104 (1985): 91.

[23] Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 262.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Moody. D Smith, Johannine Christianity (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark LTD.,, 1987), 177.

[27] Ibid., 178.

[28] A.M Okorie, “The self-revelation of Jesus in the “I am” sayings of John’s Gospel,” ATLA Religion Database with ATLA Serials, no. by ATLA (2001),, 487.

[29] Smith, Johannine Christianity, 179.


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